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John Mulaney was performing a role all along

Parasocial relationships aren’t to blame for the John Mulaney/Olivia Munn pregnancy discourse.

John Mulaney on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
Lloyd Bishop/NBC
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Two very different celebrity baby surprises have recently played out on social media, in very different ways.

In one corner, news broke that Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott are expecting their second child, confirming a rumor that some fans had suspected was true for weeks thanks to one viral TikTok by a user named Emily Schwartz. Schwartz’s close scrutiny of the color of Jenner’s fingernails had led her to speculate that Jenner was pregnant, and the revelation that she’d been correct was met with praise and triumph across the internet, while Jenner herself received celebration and well wishes.

Meanwhile, in a less glitzy corner of social media, fans and gawkers were melting down over a reveal that likewise followed weeks of speculation: Affable comedian turned scandalmonger John Mulaney and his new girlfriend, actress Olivia Munn, are expecting their first child.

Mulaney confirmed the news after candid paparazzi shots of Munn about town surfaced last week. Speaking to Seth Meyers in an interview on September 7, Mulaney described Munn’s pregnancy as part of “a relationship that’s been really beautiful with someone incredible.”

While there was wild speculation and arguably overidentification with the famous couples behind each pregnancy, there was significant anger around the Mulaney and Munn announcement — directed not only toward the couple but also at those reacting to them.

News of Mulaney and Munn’s relationship had leaked in May, just days after Mulaney filed for divorce from his wife of six years, artist Anna Marie Tendler. The news of the high-profile split came just as Mulaney was finishing a stint in rehab for drug addiction.

The Mulaney/Munn pregnancy announcement raised eyebrows across social media, especially on Twitter, as onlookers recalled how Munn had previously declared herself an “obsessed” fan of Mulaney’s — the implication being that she somehow moved in and stole Mulaney from Tendler. Many people focused on Mulaney’s previous conviction, aired in one of his more famous comedy sketches, that he didn’t want kids — while others stressed that people are allowed to change their minds.

As the Mulaney/Munn discourse gained steam, so did backlash to the backlash. “John Mulaney doesn’t owe you squat,” Slate declared. Much of the discussion focused on the presumed toxicity of “inappropriate” parasocial relationships — imagined relationships between members of the public and public figures.

Escalating waves of backlash continued as people began to critique the comedian’s fans for being too attached to the Mulaney/Tendler/Munn drama, as though they were friends rather than distant public figures. It all stood in stark contrast to the fact that Kylie Jenner fans had thoroughly considered what her manicure might reveal about her pregnancy status, without causing much of a stir — and notably, the brunt of the criticism seemed to be directed at Mulaney rather than Munn.

It might seem odd that it was John Mulaney who prompted this level of social discourse about what level of fan scrutiny is healthy and when it verges into creepily overinvested. Yet the Mulaney scandal, mild as it is, gives us a revealing insight into the way parasocial relationships function — and why certain celebrity scandals hit harder than others.

Celebrity is a collectively created social construct

Before we can talk about Mulaney’s specific case, we need to establish a few ground rules for thinking about celebrity itself.

In the 1950s, renowned philosopher Jacques Lacan developed a highly influential way of thinking about the self and its relationship to the world. Lacan posited that each individual exists in a kind of triple state: First, there’s a symbolic representation of the self, which Lacan famously argued appears when we first look in the mirror and experience a representation of the self as a coherent whole. Then there’s an imagined, often idealized, version of the self that we internalize when we envision ourselves. Finally, there’s the “real” self, the actual person who exists apart from the symbolic and imagined selves.

Lacanian theory has become a key part of understanding how humans create meaning for themselves in the broad sense. It can also help us understand, at a basic level, the difference between a celebrity and the celebrity persona that represents them. As I’ve previously argued, every celebrity exists both as themselves and as the symbol they represent. The Kardashians, for example, aren’t just people; they are symbols of new Hollywood money, power, and luxury. The Kennedys aren’t just the Kennedys; they represent the myth of the American dream and the tragedy that ultimately undermines it.

Film scholar Richard Dyer further broke down this idea in his 1979 work Stars. In it, he argued that every Hollywood star is simultaneously a symbol, a social phenomenon, and a construct that might mean different things to different audiences. Beyond that level of basic symbolism, countless celebrities and other public figures have had their lives dramatized outside of themselves through biographies, memoirs, and biographical fiction, as well as onscreen, often to further the power of a narrative. Consider the ongoing narrative of Diana Spencer as a British royal outcast — a narrative that’s now been passed down to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

In all of these cases, the individual celebrity — the actual human being — stands apart from their celebrity persona. It’s the public-facing persona that becomes a part of the cultural consciousness, and the public-facing persona that the public then helps create, expand, and shape. The persona is the thing that carries meaning, that can be commented on, excoriated, or venerated.

Above all, the celebrity’s persona is a collectively generated construct: It is partly created by the celebrity, partly created by their consciously cultivated brand, partly created by the narrative their fans and/or marketing team builds around them, and partly created by the pop culture zeitgeist.

Amanda Kehrberg, a media studies professor at Arizona State University, refers to these personas as “star texts,” a concept first introduced by Dyer. The “star texts,” she told me, “exist outside of who [celebrities] may be in real life, and what those star texts have come to mean to fans.”

Kehrberg explained that parasocial relationships are not only an embedded part of the culture, they’ve become especially important during the pandemic. “Our opportunities in recent years to interact in person have been stymied, which further heightens the importance of our parasocial, online relationships, and further erodes the boundaries between real and parasocial, ‘friend’ and ‘celebrity,’” she said.

“And one nerdy tidbit that’s interested me a lot during the pandemic [is that] studies of Terror Management Theory (TMT) [have shown] that when we’re reminded of our own mortality, we cling much more passionately to our symbols, whatever those may be.”

In other words, while many have been quick to judge the idea of parasocial relationships while observing the response to Mulaney and Munn’s pregnancy, parasocial relationships themselves can actually serve an important psychological function. Beyond cultivating a feeling of imagined intimacy, the relationship between members of the public and any given celebrity is an intrinsic part of the way we understand our society, our culture, and ourselves.

Often the meanings we project onto celebrity personas shift according to whatever larger cultural discourse is happening at the moment. That’s why American culture frequently needs to revisit earlier narratives about celebrities: When we do so, we routinely realize that we’ve been operating under false or outdated assumptions about fame, gender, class, power, and a wealth of other ideas that we’ve since reexamined. See the ongoing reconsideration of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal of the 1990s as the latest of scores of examples.

In such cases, it’s frequently not the celebrity who has changed, but rather the public’s relationship to the celebrity’s persona. Remember, the celebrity, the real human being behind the persona, is separate from our interaction with the symbolic figure of that celebrity.

What all this means is that when we think about a celebrity like John Mulaney, and when we compare and contrast the social media reactions to Mulaney’s recent life events and to Kylie Jenner’s recent life events, we aren’t just reacting to Mulaney’s or Jenner’s actions. We’re reacting to their public personas — and in the case of Mulaney specifically, many of us are expressing discomfiture that he deviated even slightly from the straitlaced nice guy he purported to represent.

Mulaney’s nice-guy schtick was probably always doomed to lead to disappointment

Mulaney is arguably one of a crop of celebrities and pop culture figures who gained popularity during a period of Obama-era liberal optimism — think Leslie Knope and Lin-Manuel Miranda. After getting his start in standup during the mid-aughts, Mulaney joined the writing team of Saturday Night Live, becoming a formidable comedy name whose relatable, down-to-earth jokes soon proliferated across social media. Gags like the one where he played Tom Jones 21 times on a diner jukebox won over audiences for their essential banality as much as for their hilarity.

As barbed as Mulaney’s humor could often be, it was generally introspective rather than aimed outward — self-deprecating rather than toxic. Even his weirder material, such as his repertoire of absurdist comedy, was a normal, benign kind of nerdery, palatable whether it was being memed by quirky geeks on Tumblr or touted by the edgelords of Reddit. He was the quintessential well-meaning, mild-mannered, liberal comedian (one veiled anti-Trump joke about the death of Julius Caesar got him investigated by the Secret Service in 2020).

Onstage and off, Mulaney spoke openly about his personal life — particularly how much he loved his now-estranged wife Tendler. “Every time I see you it feels like when Leo saw Claire Danes through the aquarium,” he wrote to Tendler in 2018 for their fourth anniversary, in a since-deleted Instagram post. The couple (and their beloved dog Petunia) were touted for their normal-people vibes; one notable example appeared in an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, in which Tendler eviscerated Mulaney’s terrible rug-buying choices. They were cute, funny, domestic, and, again, relatable — and that relatability allowed Mulaney to cultivate and benefit from an assumed intimacy with his fandom, even as he held people in reserve.

Ultimately, all of that former intimacy and openness has rebounded upon Mulaney this year — perhaps because little feels more relatable than the grief Tendler expressed when Mulaney, apparently after leaving her for Munn, filed for divorce. “I am heartbroken that John has decided to end our marriage,” she told Page Six in May.

Tendler has since chronicled her recovery on Instagram, sometimes through self-deprecating jokes about listening to breakup albums, and often through a poignant ongoing photography series that sees her sitting alone in large empty rooms.

Though she is not a public figure to the degree that Mulaney is, Tendler seems to be benefiting from the public’s extended empathy toward her as a part of its previous affection for Mulaney himself.

Meanwhile, Mulaney, while dealing with drug addiction issues during an isolating pandemic, has also struggled to overcome the public’s emerging narrative of him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “Just one year ago, the Mulaney fandom had a distinct picture of the comedian: sober, happily married, happily childless (unless you count his bulldog Petunia),” Kate Ward wrote in a September 8 essay titled “The John Mulaney Lie.” Ward points out that Mulaney’s December 2020 stint in rehab was what first “pressed a big eraser to that picture, and started drawing a different portrait that became increasingly bold as the weeks wore on.”

Granted, the newly established narrative of Mulaney as a hypocrite relies on a regressive, heteronormative version of domestic bliss — happily married, monogamous, with a dog — and that doesn’t always align with reality either, as many have been quick to point out.

“For an active, passionate fandom, Mulaney’s star persona really came to represent a rejection of both traditional, toxic gender roles and the necessity of children in defining a successful, meaningful marriage,” Kehrberg told me. “It goes without saying that this connected especially with millennial women for whom ideas of domestic bliss look very different than they did for their parents and grandparents’ generations.”

The problem, however, is that Mulaney himself cultivated this idealism and used it to promote his brand: He was a likable, happily married everyman, and that made him approachable and unlike the “average” Hollywood celebrity. He performed this role so well, in fact, that it didn’t feel to the audience like a performance — and so they forgot that it was, and had been all along. “Ugh,” wrote one commenter in response to Ward’s essay. “Shame on me for thinking that his onstage persona was really him.”

Contrast this reaction to that of a celebrity like Jenner, whose entire family has turned the performance of public persona into a multibillion-dollar industry. Though some criticism of the intense level of fan speculation about Jenner’s pregnancy did surface, it was largely drowned out by the public’s delight that her fans had sussed out the news early and accurately. The same qualms about fans being “too” attached to Jenner didn’t apply — because Jenner, unlike Mulaney, has always been part of a self-consciously cultivated media circus.

Furthermore, in the case of celebrities like the Kardashians, the public is frequently fully aware that the relationship is both one-sided and a construct. Where things get tricky is when the artificial nature of that relationship becomes less clear. It’s difficult to imagine any given Kardashian family scandal — for all they’ve also encompassed cheating, divorce, and surprise pregnancies — inducing the same level of personal betrayal and backlash as Mulaney’s pregnancy with Munn, because the Kardashians have always let us in on the game of cultivated artifice, and we have accepted that we’re all collectively creating the myth.

This latest instance of a standup comedian pretending to be a normal guy, but then turning out to have the same clichéd problems as so many other white men in Hollywood, feels like a dirty twist. It wasn’t the narrative we were promised. (See also: Louis C.K., a branded-liberal comedian whose fans felt betrayed by his persona when he admitted to sexual misconduct.)

So now, along with Mulaney, we’ll have to rebuild a new collective image of what “John Mulaney, comedian” represents. Mulaney, at least, is self-aware about what a challenge that presents: “They’re all uncomfortable to be,” he told Seth Meyers when Meyers asked him if post-rehab Mulaney was “the hardest version of John Mulaney to be.” He described the experience as like standing on “Bambi legs” — a predictably cute, Mulaney-ish way of describing a complicated new situation.

However, if the public allows Mulaney to reinvent himself, to have a significant say in the next iteration of his collectively constructed public persona, it probably won’t be as a winsome newborn babe in the woods. It will likely, instead, be a much different, darker, and perhaps even humbler version of the impossibly perfect symbol we thought we knew.

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify accusations against Louis C.K.